Ex-South Africans labour under uncertainty in UK

  • Janine Stein
Ex-South African Jewish voters in London are worried what a possible election win by the Labour Party – mired in allegations of institutional anti-Semitism – might mean for Jewish life in the United Kingdom. The 12 December polls come in the wake of political paralysis over Brexit, the conditions under which the UK will leave the European Union.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Dec 05, 2019

Labour faces serious charges of anti-Semitism. Jonathan Rudolph, 54, is a medical doctor who left South Africa in 1991. He said, “The current Labour Party is full of people who detest Israel and its right to exist … They don’t hate all Jews, just the ones who feel Israel should exist, and the irony is they don’t see that as anti-Semitism, but everyone else does.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Solomon, 46, who left South Africa in 2002 said, “Claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party are absolutely true. It’s the same old tropes … Even though you’ve had stalwart Jewish Labour members who’ve been in the party for decades, and you’ve seen them warn and cry out for help, nothing has helped. The people in control have sidelined the moderates and centrists. The complaints about [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn calling Hamas and other militant groups his friends are true – you can see the videos.”

Fifty six-year old copywriter Janine Stein left South Africa in 1985. She said, “I work with many people outside our Jewish bubble. I have known about Labour’s institutional anti-Semitism for at least a year. But coming up to the elections, it’s clear that non-Jews aren’t aware of the specific granular issues and events … They don’t know about [Corbyn laying] wreaths at the graves of the murderers of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games. This is news to them. They don’t know Jews were allowed back into the UK only 300 years ago. It’s become them and us, and no one in [non-Jewish] Britain cares about real Jewish grievances with Labour.”

So, where will Jewish votes go among all this disillusionment? Said Rudolph, “This is the most important election in this country in a generation. Our politics has diverged to the extremes where we have a choice between a hard right Conservative Party and a hard left Labour Party, and very little choice in between. The Liberal Democrats who probably best represent my views … would almost certainly go into power with [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn to stop Brexit. Therefore, as much as I dislike Boris Johnson and the current Conservative Party, I will be voting for them to prevent Jeremy Corbyn being elected prime minister.”

Yoel Strous is 39 and works as a consultant for a global software and analytics company. He left South Africa in 2014. “Years ago, I liked the idea of New Labour and what Tony Blair stood for,” he said, but he feels he has to vote Conservative, as this is a much more radical Labour Party.

Stein said, “I don’t want Brexit, so I am voting Lib Dem [Liberal Democrats]. I can’t vote Labour as it would be like a turkey voting for Thanksgiving. I can’t vote Conservative because I don’t trust Boris Johnson’s leadership.”

Opinion polls currently make an outright Labour win unlikely, but that’s what was said about the 2016 Brexit referendum. If this happens, Rudolph said, “We will live in very uncertain times with a government opposed to Israel, and I suspect it will put a lot of what we do as a Jewish community within the areas of Zionism under stress.”

“The big issue will be the relationship with Israel, and the relationship between the leadership of the community and government. The chief rabbi, Board of Deputies [of British Jews], and Jewish Leadership Council have made it very clear that a Labour government is terrible for the UK,” said Strous.

But Carrie Miller, 39, a corporate account manager who left South Africa in 2014, said things might have been blown out of proportion by electioneering. “There is a lot of scaremongering, but I don’t believe that a possible Labour win would affect the Jewish community in a major way. It’s a very vocal community of nearly 300 000 … Having said that, a lot of people are threatening to leave or make aliyah.”

Many think that a Labour government would be short-lived, to be voted out at the next election.

There are growing worries about anti-Semitism in a society where it was hitherto subterranean. “There is definitely a feeling in our community that things are a bit different,” said Rabbi Solomon. “As a rabbi, as a frum family, we look Jewish, and we have had things happen to us … Thank G-d it hasn’t been violent.” The inaction by political leaders on anti-Semitism “definitely raises the feeling in communities that maybe we’re not so safe here”, Solomon said.

Several ex-South African Jews approached for this story declined to be quoted. This self-censorship speaks volumes, suggesting that fear is percolating in the community.

“British Jews don’t want to stand out,” Stein said. “In my shul, British-born Jews didn’t like the chief rabbi speaking out [against Corbyn]. Foreign-born Jews like myself and other South Africans were pleased he spoke out.”

When asked if she is considering leaving the UK, Miller said, “Not at all, I think life for Jews in the UK is generally very good, and I haven’t encountered anti-Semitism here myself. I have heard of a few incidents though, but I don’t think it’s worse than other countries.”

Strous said, “Nowhere is perfect, and governments come and go. Jews have been living in the UK for more than 300 years ... We need more bridge building with different faiths and communities, and leaders who encourage this.”

Stein said, “I won’t leave the UK if Labour wins. But I feel like we had a break from anti-Semitism which is now over. Anti-Semitism is real in Labour, and it leaves left-leaning Jews like me homeless.”

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